Chris Ladley gauges the evolution of his stress regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the restaurant industry in terms of tater tot consumption.
"When it started getting really bad, Qui [Tran] asked me if we had anything crappy to eat in the walk-in,"Ladley recalls. "I told him we had tater tots, so I fried some up. At first, I had a small bowl. Eventually, it turned into a medium-sized one and the next thing we knew, we were eating them out of a large mixing bowl. The two of us ate an entire case of them in four days."
For Ladley and his Nudo House (multiple locations including 6105 A Delmar Boulevard, 314-370-6970)
team, the buildup and current reality of the COVID-19 pandemic provided reason to be stressed. Since mid-March, the restaurant industry has been turned on its head as people stay home to curb the virus' devastation. Like all of his hospitality colleagues, Ladley faces an uncertain future as business suffers because of takeout and delivery-only service, and it's unclear when — or if — it will resume to pre-COVID levels.
However, Ladley feels lucky. Because fast-casual Nudo House already did a significant amount of to-go business, the transition to takeout and delivery-only has been smoother than it has for restaurants that have had to reinvent themselves. He's been steadily employed, he's been busy when he's at work and the restaurant has been able to fast-track some plans for prepared foods that have helped it earn additional income during this business disruption.
"Qui and I have been grinders forever, so we said, 'Let's figure out how to rub two pennies together,'" Ladley says. "We've been doing a weekly catering for Washington University, have been able to get some branded things in Scnhucks and have turned the restaurant into a grocery store. It hasn't really been a pivot but more that we realized the things we wanted to do in the future we could do now. It was terrifying and nauseating at first, but we realized that the only way we are going to get through is to put our heads down and figure it out."
Ladley admits it hasn't been easy, though. There are days when the phones don't ring and the Postmates terminal is silent. Because he knows how much money the restaurant has to take in on any given day, the uncertainty is brutal. He draws strength from his camaraderie with industry peers. From supporting each other's businesses to helping each other navigate the current meat shortage, Ladley has seen the best in people even while they experience some of the worst times of their professional lives. He feels that support from the public as well and has been heartened that people have shown how much the city's restaurant scene means to them. Both give him hope that the industry will come back.
"There has been so much cooperation between restaurants and staff and friends and the community," Ladley says. "If we keep up with that, the scene is not going to fizzle, and we are not going to let the chains take over. If there is one thing St. Louisans are, it's scrappy. That's what I love about this city. We incubated our own scene, because no one gave a crap about us. That's what made us, and that's what is going to keep us from drowning."
Ladley took a break from Nudo House's kitchen to share how he is personally coping during COVID-19 and what gives him hope, even as things seem dark.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I guess the daily anxiety is uncertainty. Margins are already super thin in this business; now dining room revenue is gone, and costs are going up because we are having to purchase [personal protective equipment] and an ample amount of carryout containers. The food system is slowing down, meat supply is super janky right now … supply is getting thin, so prices are going way up. The [Paycheck Protection Program] and the government loans are just Band-Aids on a bullet hole. They were never designed to keep restaurants in business long-term. My long-term anxiety is the realization that prices in restaurants are going to have to increase, but will people pay more for food? New health standards are going to drive up overhead, food prices are going up, the overall cost of doing business will go up. When I was at Quincy Street we raised the price of a sandwich by $1, and people flipped out, so it makes me nervous for the future. Food prices are going to have to increase, but if you don’t have the dining room and the level of service, will the price increase be deemed “worth it”?
What do you miss most about your job?
I feel very lucky during this whole “event,” because I haven’t been out of work. We’ve been grinding six days a week to keep our staff and our vendors paid. We’re fortunate that our existing business model didn’t need to be transitioned to carry-out/delivery. If there was one thing I miss most about how the job “used to be," it would be the customers. We have amazing regulars; people, families, groups would come in weekly, if not daily. You become friends with these people and families. I miss taking care of people, feeding people. That’s why we (restaurant folk) do what we do, because we love it.
What do you miss least?
RUDE. FUCKING. PEOPLE. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still dickholes out there who are shitty to those in the service industry. We get them from time to time in the shop, but not having a dining room has greatly lessened the exposure to asshole people. Sorry you’re inconvenienced by a global fucking pandemic, but THERE IS NO EXCUSE TO TREAT ANYONE LIKE SHIT. Ever. Be excellent to each other. It’s simple.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
To make it seem like life before COVID? I’m still working every day, so ... Kidding! I make sure I get outside every day. I need the fresh air. It’s rather pleasant — and also super creepy — how quiet the city is at night, so I’ll sit on the back patio and just be present, turn off the brain for a bit, stop thinking about work. Must make time for the woosah.
What have you been stress eating/drinking lately?
Tater tots. Seriously. Ask Qui! Tater tots are like starchy, crunchy, salty anti-depressants. And chicken tenders. I guess when we are stressed we eat like five year olds. Stress drinking? That sounds really bad to say. Depends on the week. This week was tequila week. Last week was rum week. Maybe we will go gin next week (ahem, looking at you 1220 Spirits).
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Advil, nitrile gloves and empathy. All are essential for survival right now.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick
Living: Alton Brown, Kate McKinnon and Steve Martin. Great food, great laughs, great tunes. Dead: Hunter S. Thompson, Robin Williams, Lemmy from Motorhead. Party.
Once COVID-19 is no longer a threat and people are allowed to go back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Eat in my favorite restaurants, go to my favorite bars and bomb as much money into the tip buckets as I can. Lots of hugs, too. I’m a hugger.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I’d like to think that the masses will be more educated about wage disparity, lack of benefits and financial insecurity in this industry and will stand by us for a positive change. What I do know is that the grinders — the ones who never stop, keep pushing, keep cooking, keep moving forward — will still be grinding just like we always have.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
Our city: The way our industry has come together to help each other, the way our guests have rallied around their favorite restaurants, the way we are able to feed the people battling this pandemic, the way that we are still allowed to do what we do best. This city, this community, is what has made the restaurant industry in this city what it is, and it is what will keep us moving forward.
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